Page images
PDF
EPUB

be the definitive philosophy. But he had not been dead eight years before his empire was divided into three conflicting kingdoms, his disciples into three schools, of which one was theistic, another pantheistic, and the third atheistic. In that short period a number of his disciples had found, or fancied that they found, that absolute idealism was little else than another name for materialism. Michelet and Strauss, while adhering to the distinction between idea and nature, logic and physics, contended that God is personal only in man, and the soul immortal only in God, meaning thereby that God as God is not personal, and real souls not immortal. Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, Arnold Ruge, reduced the idea to mere nature and returned to naked atheism. With a strange fanatical sincerity they preached that the universal being of humanity, or the individual man, or nature, was the sole object of supreme veneration.

In another way idealism occasioned materialism. Its excesses under the manipulation of Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and their followers, provoked a reaction in favour of empiricism. Speculation by its audacity, combined with weakness and wordiness, excited aversion. Men whose hopes had been so often deceived by ideas, resolved to put confidence only in facts. They determined to build entirely on the data of the senses, and to follow exclusively the guidance of the physical sciences. If they had done this they would necessarily have been silent about God, the soul, the moral law, the destiny of man, for these are subjects on which mere sense and physical science have nothing to say. At the same time, they are subjects on which man as a rational and moral being cannot help reflecting. The consequence in Germany was, that many persons took to judging of them from the merely physical science point of view. In the name of this or that mechanical or biological generalisation, they hastened to inform the public that there could be no God, no soul, no freedom, &c . Moleschott, Vogt, Buchner, were in the van of this new movement, which is sometimes called scientific materialism. As all the world knows, it has had extraordinary success.

The chief reason, I remark in the third place, of the prevalence of the so-called scientific materialism has been the rapid and brilliant progress in recent times of the physical, and especially of the biological sciences. All the sciences of material nature—astronomy, natural philosophy, chemistry, geology, physiology, natural history, &c.—have been within the lifetime of the present generation wonderfully enriched with discoveries of facts and laws, and signally productive of inventions which have increased human wealth, comfort, and power. The mental, moral, and theological sciences have not advanced with anything like the same speed; they can point to no similar harvest of indisputable and benignant results; if they have made any conquests these have necessarily not been of a kind to dazzle the eye and impress the imagination. It is not surprising, therefore, that physical science should have attracted general and engrossing attention; that it should to a large extent have been cultivated and appreciated in a one-sided manner; that what had been seen to do so much should by'many have been fancied to possess unlimited powers. But this is equivalent to saying that it is not surprising that many scientific men should have become materialists, and should have imagined their materialism due to their science, although really due to their ignorance.

The mere study of physical nature does not carry us beyond matter and its processes. Its most elaborate methods can give us no apprehension of God, or soul, or moral sense. So far as mere physical science can discern, "if God had slept a million years, all things would be the same." No telescope or microscope can enable us to detect freewill or any other attribute of mind. Physical science can only tell us of physical objects, physical properties, and physical laws. If no other voice is to be heard, no other witness to be called, the verdict of reason must necessarily be that materialism is true.

The recent progress of the biological sciences, and the great popularity which they enjoy, are also very noteworthy circumstances in this connection. The least observant minds can hardly fail to have been struck with the remarkable manner in which these sciences have come to the front during the last twenty or thirty years. It would be easy to indicate the causes of this, but it is its consequences which concern us. Materialism has clearly gained by it in more ways than one. Naturalists and physiologists are more apt, perhaps, to become materialists than natural philosophers, because it is possible for the former to be greatly distinguished in their vocations without requiring ever seriously to ask what matter is, but hardly for the latter, who have to deal with it in its more general and essential nature. The natural philosopher may denounce as metaphysics the question, What is matter? but he is not only always trying to answer the question, but his answer, as a rule, comes so near that of the metaphysician, that he is rarely a materialist. It is in the form of exaggerations of the influence of physical agencies, and of physiological qualities, that materialism is generally made use of as a principle of scientific explanation; and this is done by those whose studies are least fitted to disclose to them what the natural philosopher, and still more, the speculative thinker, are perfectly aware of, that much more can be said for a mathematical theory of matter or a mental theory of matter, than for a material theory of mind and history.

The advance of science into the various provinces of the organic world has favoured materialism still more by its influence on the character of the scientific spirit. Regions have now been entered, where to proceed rigidly, according to the rules either of deduction or induction, is as yet often impossible; where not a step can be taken which is not conjectural and venturesome; where at every turn a host of hypotheses must be devised and tested. What an enormous number of hypotheses have been suggested and associated with the Darwinian doctrine of development, itself still a hypothesis,! This state of things is inevitable, but none the less is there a serious danger in it. Men of science are not unlikely in such circumstances to forget what the demands of scientific method really are, and to allow the plausible often to pass for the probable, and the probable for the proved. What may be called the scientific conscience, or, at least, scientific conscientiousness, runs a serious risk of loss and injury. The risk has, I fear, already largely passed into reality. Is it not painfully obvious that a large number of those who profess to give us scientific instruction in biology, ethnology, sociology, &c., have the very vaguest views of what proof is? Is there not a

« PreviousContinue »